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What Steve O Keefe's Bowling Tells Us About The New Aussie Approach In India
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What Steve O Keefe's Bowling Tells Us About The New Aussie Approach In India

The ongoing Indian home season had all the signs of a drowsy summer: the same, interchangeable days with no breaks in the monotonous dominance established by the hosts. India would turn up, hand their spinners the ball, and visiting teams would fall apart, handing over victories of mammoth margins.


Upcoming were the Australians, recent witnesses to a humbling experience at the hands of a transitioning Sri Lankan side on turning tracks. They had stacked their side with inexperienced spinners, but the English had recently failed with the same strategy. Their batsmen had history, recent and distant, pushing them down. Not even their own legends gave them a chance to win a game.


What came next was like an unexpected burst of showers, vivifying and replete with thunder. Woken up by their Sri Lankan debacle, Australia had come prepared, hiring an Indian domestic veteran in Sridharan Sriram, and practicing long and hard on different spinning tracks in Dubai. The Indians, safely ensconced in a yet unchallenged pattern, were given a rude shock in Pune, hosting its first Test. On a spinning track, the unheralded Steve O’Keefe devastated India’s batting, and Steve Smith displayed brilliant ingenuity to counter the threat of the non-spinning ball to script a historic win.


In Sri Lanka, the Australians had been felled more by the ball that took no turn, indicative of an ingrained attitude towards playing spin. On the harder tracks in the Southern Hemisphere, there is little lateral movement for spinners, and the ball mostly comes truly on to the bat. Thus, getting completely to the pitch of the ball, a fundamental maxim in subcontinental coaching manuals, becomes less important.


Led by Smith, the visiting batsmen used another strategy: they started playing beside the line of the ball. The first thing that accomplished is getting their pads out of the way. The second benefit was protecting the inner edge of the bat. The bat was kept as close to the body as possible, covering the stumps. Balls turning past the outside edge were far away, and fast forgotten, while those not turning were safely blocked. This successful parrying of the looming Indian spin threat begs the question: what was the difference?


The techniques of bowling in one set of conditions do not prove to be fruitful when blindly copied to another one, no matter how conducive the pitches might be. A change in pitches and opposing batsmen calls for a careful realignment of strategy and execution from spinners. Visiting spinners have often struggled to perform in India, despite the expectation of better returns in spin-friendly conditions, for this very reason. Just ask one Shane Keith Warne.


Thus, the impending challenge for Australia’s spinners was how quickly and how well they could gauge the conditions and zero in on the perfect way to bowl on these pitches, to this set of batsmen. And what a response they had in store!


Steve O’Keefe, with limited Test exposure, orchestrated twin collapses, embarrassing the hosts, and winning the man of the match trophy. It is instructive to compare him with his opposite left-arm spinner, Ravindra Jadeja. We first look at the pitch maps of the two in the respective first innings:

 (Jadeja to Australian RHB – 1st Inn)

(Jadeja to Australian RHB – 1st Inn)


 (O’Keefe to Indian RHB – 1st Inn)

(O’Keefe to Indian RHB – 1st Inn)


Both these bowlers show a fair spread of length around the 3 to 6 meter mark. However, their style of getting wickets is completely different. Jadeja got his through two skidders that had the batsmen trapped deep in the crease, and out leg before. O’Keefe, however, had Ajinkya Rahane and Wriddhiman Saha caught at slip while poking, and one batsman stumped trying to reach out and defend on the front foot. KL Rahul and Umesh Yadav skied shots, enticed by flight.


To further our investigation of why the Australian batting could escape Jadeja’s usual wrath, and why O’Keefe bagged some classical spin dismissals, we should now look at the beehives of the two bowlers:


 (Jadeja to Australian RHB – 1st Inn)

(Jadeja to Australian RHB – 1st Inn)


 (O’Keefe to Indian RHB – 1st Inn)

(O’Keefe to Indian RHB – 1st Inn)


Simply put, given the turn available in the pitch, Jadeja’s deliveries were doing too much to end up on the stumps. As stated above, batsmen could guard their stumps, and ignore balls ending up outside off, a fair few of which were bowled by Jadeja, who needed to adjust his length, and either bowl slightly fuller, or create a wider angle to reduce the lateral movement of the ball, so it ended up on the batsmen’s legs, where he is most dangerous.


On the other hand, O’Keefe had the perfect amount of turn to mostly end up in the corridor of uncertainty and invite pokes and drives from India’s right-handers, aided by the most important aspect of difference between the two, however, their trajectories. Let’s look at one over each from Jadeja and O’Keefe, for an illustration.


 Trajectories: Ravindra Jadeja)

Trajectories: Ravindra Jadeja)


 (Trajectories: Steve O’Keefe)

(Trajectories: Steve O’Keefe)


O’Keefe’s deliveries are flighted, but always going downward, landing slightly fuller. A fuller, flighted ball delivered from a higher release point makes the batsman come forward more, and has more chance of landing short of the front foot stride, therefore inducing an edge. With his flight, O’Keefe had the Indian batsmen in two minds, his flight lulling them forward, but also making the ball drop earlier than they expected, jeopardizing their outside edges. Also, his lines compelled them to play, and his turn was just the right amount of sharp to catch those edges rather than miss them. Comparing O'Keefe with Jadeja, we can see how Jadeja has bowled relatively shorter, slinging it into the pitch, while SOK has pitched it noticeably fuller, while not compromising on the flight. Jadeja’s balls allowed the batsmen to hang back, gauge them, and then keep their bats out of harm’s way.


O'Keefe found the perfect flight path to bowl on such a pitch, and his Indian spin counterpart failed to adapt to the slightly deviant conditions. The Indian batsmen were found suspect against nagging, accurate spin, and the Indian spinners were lost on a pitch very different from the usual fare this home season. It might have been an arduous pitch, but only one team, all disciplines included, adapted well enough, quaking the Indian team, observers and fans out of stupor, and injecting life into a series that had been predicted to be another listless drubbing of a visiting side clueless on how to play or bowl spin.